Teams gain computing, life skills in cybersecurity competition

Freshman Christopher Gemperle studies a “readme” file as part of the CyberPatriot competition at Turlock High School on Friday.
Freshman Christopher Gemperle studies a “readme” file as part of the CyberPatriot competition at Turlock High School on Friday. naustin@modbee.com

Student teams in Turlock, Modesto and Merced are taking down worms, viruses and Trojans – the computer equivalents of colds, the stomach flu and cancer – in a largely self-taught exercise masterminded by an online competition.

“I’m an IT guy, and I went through this and thought, wow, this is really tough stuff,” said Jon Domke, an adviser for the Modesto Civil Air Patrol cadet team in the CyberPatriot contest of the National Youth Cyber Education Program.

Competing in a separate division, two teams at Merced’s El Capitan High School and three teams at Turlock High School spent Friday tackling the latest virtual afflictions. Each contest raises the bar for slip-ups, malicious mischief and high-stakes espionage – the real-world risks for today’s electronic workhorses.

“These are the kids who are going to be running things when I retire,” said Domke, whose day job is solving high-level network problems for AT&T U-verse. The Modesto team, made up of two eighth-graders from Mountain House and Newman, and a junior at Pitman High School in Turlock, competes as the Lt. Col. Arthur King Composite Squadron.

The competition drives kids to learn the complex logic behind the mostly invisible work of computers, said El Capitan High information technology teacher Sam Diele. “Lot of kids in our area, they just don’t see it. They use the technology, but they don’t know what’s behind the technology,” he said.

Diele teaches programming and digital media production at the high school in north Merced, now in its second year of operation. “We don’t have a class that talks about cybersecurity yet. I think there is a need for it,” he said.

To help teens tackle each round’s harder questions and better-hidden bugs, the contest offers a massive array of free information. Diele sees sensible self-interest in contest funding that comes largely from tech industry giants. “There’s a lot of high-profile companies that really support this thing,” he said.

This is the first year for the El Capitan CyberPatriot teams, made up of sophomores and juniors competing at the silver (beginning) and gold (intermediate) level. “It’s amazing how the kids get into it. They’re just wired,” he said.

Turlock High’s three teams are also in their first CyberPatriot year. One includes students from engineering technology classes; two pull from its Navy Junior ROTC program. The 18 students, freshmen through seniors, all work together, stressed advisers for both.

“Everything they do is with collaboration,” said Carlos Montanez, Navy Junior ROTC instructor at the school. “We are mentoring and facilitating these teams. They’re teaching themselves, to be very honest with you. It’s amazing, the stuff they’re learning.”

The Turlock teams compete in the large-school division, matching wits at the gold and platinum (advanced) level, Montanez said. “We want to compete against the big city, big schools,” he said. “They get a feel for how they are in the big pond.”

Montanez team-teaches engineering technology classes with semiretired teacher Bob Hoskins, now in his 41st year at THS. The school’s tech program, begun in 1935 by John Pitman, is the state’s oldest ongoing electronics program, Hoskins said.

The two men want to push that legacy forward, Montanez said, putting Turlock High on the map with practical, career-based technology skills. Leading the charge are students such as sophomore Ryan Paschen, captain of the Alpha NJROTC team.

“It’s the newest thing. It’s fresh and fun. I never thought I’d be doing this in high school,” Paschen said between rounds Friday. Having survived several rounds of competition, he has come to see the value of trading off players. “Five people can’t all have the mouse,” he said. “We switch, get fresh ideas, fresh minds. It really helps.”

Teammates keep the ideas flowing, he added. “It seems by the time you get about halfway, you tend to hit a wall and you sit there, staring at the screen,” Paschen said. “After that it takes critical thinking, the outside-the-box thinking.”

The teens did not start out in sync. It took time to learn each other’s strengths, senior Karla Moreno said. “We don’t really have a teacher. It’s self-assessment. We have to really think about this,” she said. But the effort will pay off, the aspiring programming developer added. “This is what we want to do in our future.”

“This has taught me a lot about worms and viruses that is actually neat,” said senior Patrick Riley. The shortcuts and programming he’s learned in the contest have made him very comfortable with all his computer tasks, he said. “Not all schools are doing this. This is network defense,” Riley said, perfect for the future career he plans as a software designer.

Sophomore Tyler Brittain has no plans to spend his life in the cyber sector, but said he has gained skills valuable in every job. “It helped me learn a lot of things I never thought would be important. But now I know how essential it is,” Brittain said.

Standing cutting-edge, the teens can scoff with authority at computer-whiz TV characters who hack through passwords and security systems in the blink of an eye. “I’m like, that’s not possible. That doesn’t happen,” said Jordana Brown, captain of her team, with a laugh.

Brown, a junior, came to the campus last year. “I was brand-new in Turlock. I was scared. I knew no one,” she said. The Junior ROTC program and the tech team gave her a ready-made niche. “It was like – home,” she said. Time spent with the team is time with friends, but also time with a long-term purpose, she said.

“I’m going to get so much experience. I’m so ready for the future,” she said.